Published April 30, 2015
Saint Petersburg from its ground-breaking in 1704; Petrograd from 1914; Leningrad from the arch-demonic founding father’s death in 1924; and St. Petersburg redux, with the hope of civilization restored, in 1991. But the most beautiful and illustrious Russian city is still best known as Leningrad, its name immortalized with the black luster of incalculable wartime suffering. And perhaps the most famous 20th-century symphony is Dmitri Shostakovich’s Seventh (1942), the “Leningrad,” so-called by acclamation. For while the composer did write the first three movements of the work in Leningrad and dedicate the piece to this jewel on the Neva, he did not actually name it after the beleaguered, starving, and freezing city.
Now, the cultivated, much-traveled foreign correspondent and author Brian Moynahan, who has seen a great deal of war in many places, has done valuable service to the city’s years of supreme ordeal and the composer’s tribute. Hitler’s siege of Leningrad, from September 1941 until January 1944, is among the episodes of the Second World War that decent men cannot allow to be forgotten, although the authorized Russian version still prefers that the very worst be deleted from public memory. The war altered the scale by which devastation, physical and moral, is measured, and the whole truth can be too much to bear.
The decent nations’ alliance with Soviet Russia soils the gilded American memory (not to say fantasy) of the Good War. And the ordinary Soviet citizen’s awareness of his motherland’s own political diabolism upends the Russian moral grandiosity of the Great Patriotic War. The savagery Stalin directed against his own subjects made him Hitler’s rival in the darkest princely arts well before the two rulers became certified colleagues in pillage and plunder.
The two dictators, moreover, were closely matched in strategic folly. Hitler’s race-madness and vainglory brought down the Thousand-Year Reich 988 years ahead of schedule, not least because he committed the cardinal military sin of invading Russia, well-known since the tribulation of the Teutonic Knights. But Stalin’s thirst for his countrymen’s blood, and his military incapacity in crisis, ensured that Russia was nearly wiped off the map by his once-trusted ally.
For Hitler, the Molotov-Ribbentrop nonaggression pact of 1939 was, essentially, a delaying tactic: No treaty with Slav and Asiatic sub-humans, let alone the Jewish Bolsheviks, could be expected to stand any longer than absolutely necessary. In Hitler’s fever dreams, Leningrad and Moscow were destined to disappear from the earth. German engineering would create an artificial lake whose waters covered the scorched stumps of the capital city. Vernichtung was the ultimate war aim in the east: the extermination of creatures unfit to live in a purified world.
Stalin, of course, had his own ideas of purity. In Moynahan’s words, “Pre-war Leningrad had been a pole of cruelty, the most defiled of all Soviet cities. . . . Leningrad was purged as no other.” Crazed personal resentment helped drive the local effects of this program of destruction. The city’s architectural loveliness, its proud history of literary excellence and intellectual defiance, gave it an almost European grace and refinement—and thus rendered it particularly unforgivable in the eyes of a Georgian provincial only too conscious of his inelegant beginnings.
With its own half-mad tyrant in command, Russia could not have been more unready when Operation Barbarossa headed its way in June 1941. Stalin had gutted the Red Army officer corps during the 1937-38 purges of the Great Terror: As many as half of its 75,000 officers had been arrested, and the higher one’s rank, the more certain one’s end. Three of the five Soviet marshals and two of the four naval fleet commanders received the traditional bullet in the back of the skull. Every corps commander and nearly every division commander went down likewise—though a lucky (or unlucky) few were shipped off to the slow-motion death camps of the Siberian Arctic.
Thus, when the imminence of Nazi invasion became undeniable to all but Stalin, the surviving brass was disinclined to breach the great man’s omniscient serenity. Even as panzer divisions rolled in, and the Soviet Air Force was smashed before it ever left the ground, commissars and generals issued orders not to fire on German forces, for Stalin had decreed that such an invasion was impossible. The commotion must be some gross misunderstanding. As for Stalin himself, he shivered and crumpled in the unexpected and unrelenting west wind: Nikita Khrushchev would say, years later, that the Man of Steel proved useless for weeks after the attack. By September 1941, the Germans had Leningrad under siege.
Leningrad would have all the comforts of hell. The siege took some 750,000 civilian lives. Epidemic starvation went under the more respectable diagnosis of dystrophy. Once-civilized persons shared their lodgings with frozen corpses. Thousands of instances of cannibalism—and examples by the dozens of mothers murdering their starving children to make a meal of them—are documented but better forgotten. As Anna Reid notes succinctly in Leningrad (2011), “The Russian language makes the morally vital distinction between trupoyedstvo—‘corpse-eating’—andlyudoyedstvo—‘person-eating,’ or murder for cannibalism.” A language that observes such niceties does say a lot about a people. And all the while, not even the enemy pressing from without could stop Stalin’s endless war on the “enemy” within: “The deranged accusations,” writes Moynahan, “the discovery of elaborate, rambling ‘plots’ went on apace.” The ordinary Leningrader had every reason to fear the NKVD as much as the SS.
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) and his Seventh Symphony came to represent Russian indomitability both to Russians themselves and to listeners in the civilized world. The piece had its world premiere in March 1942 in Kuibyshev, where the composer had been swept off for safekeeping; but that occasion was overshadowed by the first performance in Leningrad the following August. Moynahan’s account of the event, with an inspired pickup orchestra playing to an audience with “stick-insect limbs,” is richly heartening and almost unbearably sorrowful.
As for the reception abroad, mandarin music critics could carp at the symphony’s “lassitude” and “platitude,” but the great public, eager to believe the best of their Soviet allies, hailed not just the music and the man but the entire nation that produced such stalwarts. Shostakovich, in a Leningrad fireman’s helmet, graced the cover of Time, which declared that in the symphony’s “last movement the triumphant brasses prophesy what Shostakovich describes as the ‘victory of light over darkness, of humanity over barbarism.’ ”
In 1942, Arturo Toscanini’s NBC Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony, the Chicago Symphony, and the Cleveland Orchestra all performed the Seventh Symphony, and the crowds almost invariably went wild from political sympathy as much as from aesthetic bliss. Millions exulted at the radio broadcasts. Moynahan deals brusquely with Carl Sandburg’s braying encomium, characteristic of American excitement at the time, to “a great singing people beyond defeat or conquest”:
The music succeeded perfectly. It hid the camps and the interrogation chambers. The Soviets were not only civilized and cultured: they were also upholders of human freedom.
With the war’s end, no half-serious observer could be fooled any more, as Shostakovich and Leningrad slid into disgrace. The piano-playing apparatchik Andrei Zhdanov found his native city and its sometime heroes to be undemocratic stooges of the imperialist West. He fingered the writers Mikhail Zoshchenko and Anna Akhmatova as enemies of the people, and a Zhdanov flunky denounced Shostakovich, Sergei Prokofiev, and Aram Khatchaturian as “Formalist vermin” who were conspiring to bring down the state with music insufferable to honest proletarian ears.
Such attentions were not limited to artists: In 1950, 2,000 Leningrad municipal and regional bureaucrats went to prison or to the wall. “The city’s proud Museum of the Siege was closed,” writes Moynahan. “The heroism of the siege itself was written off as a myth designed to denigrate the grandeur of Stalin.”
How, then, are Shostakovich’s masterwork and the Passion of Leningrad best remembered? Not a single American commentator at the time remarked that Shostakovich’s macabre rendering of malignity on the march might have represented anyone other than Adolf Hitler. But the composer would be quoted in Testimony (1979), his memoir related to musicologist Solomon Volkov, in this way: “I have nothing against calling the Seventh the Leningrad Symphony, but it’s not about Leningrad under siege; it’s about the Leningrad that Stalin destroyed and that Hitler merely finished off.”
Moynahan shrugs at the lingering controversy about how much of the composer’s second-hand loathing of Stalin is fact: “In the end, perhaps, it does not matter.” But it does matter, a great deal, and Moynahan’s own impressive book shows why.
Algis Valiunas is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.